13 May 2018

Afghanistan: Conflict Metrics 2000-2018

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The U.S. has now entered its seventeenth year of war in Afghanistan, and there is no clear end to the war in sight. At present, there seems to be little prospect that a combination of Afghan government, U.S., and allied forces can defeat the Taliban and other insurgent and terrorist forces or will be defeated by them. The conflict has become a war of attrition which can drag on indefinitely, and can only be ended through some form of peace negotiation or the sudden, unexpected collapse of either Afghan government or threat forces – a transition from a war of attrition to a war of exhaustion on one side.

Selectively Surveying Official, UN, and NGO Combat Metrics

The Burke Chair at CSIS has assembled a survey of key combat metrics and official U.S. summary assessments of the war since its beginning. It is entitled Afghanistan: The Conflicting Metrics of Conflict 2000-2018, and is available on the CSIS web site here.

The analysis focuses on the periods leading up to the surge in Afghanistan, failed plans for U.S. withdrawal, and the change in U.S. strategy to a continuing conditions-based presence. It also focuses on combat metrics – maps and graphics. This is only a small part of the history and nature of the war – it omits the civil side of the conflict, Afghan force development, and many other key factors, but it does provide a picture of how the U.S., UN, Afghan, allied, and NGO sources have appraised the ebb and flow of conflict over time.

It does not provide dramatic new insights into the course of the war : A war of attrition is a war of attrition, but it does warn that the U.S. either failed to properly assess the war, or properly react to it, from the period after 2002, when the Taliban began to return as a major threat, through U.S. plans to withdraw all most forces after 2014, and that no current official assessment of the war provides any clear picture as to when it might end.

In fairness, the current “conditions-based” strategy is still in the process of being implemented and full implementation and its effects will not be apparent until 2019-2020 –and only then if Afghanistan can conduct a successful election and create a more effective and unified government.

Questionable and Directly Contradictory Estimates of Taliban and Government Control

Nevertheless, the survey does raise serious questions about the combat metrics the United States and its allies have used throughout the war, and the degree that these have been consciously or unconsciously politicized to overstate success or support efforts at withdrawal.

The analysis helps illustrate this by grouping the data into various time clusters to provide easier comparison. It also provides progressively more competing narratives to help explain what sometimes are major differences in the trends portrayed by given sources.

It does not attempt to reconcile the major differences that emerge between sources, or in comparing different types of metrics. In many cases, the source never attempts to defined key terms, indicate the methodology used, or describe the level of uncertainty in the information provided.

In any case, the metrics often speak for themselves. Anyone familiar with the conflict will be all too well aware of the extent to which the metrics provide in a given period did or did not fully present a valid picture of the war. Anyone who participated in the policies shaping the war over time will be aware of the extent to which official sources chose metrics that exaggerated success, never addressed the deep divisions and lack of actual effective governance on the part of the Afghan government, and emphasize tactical outcomes over insurgent influence

The detailed comparisons of metrics for 2017-2018, and their supporting texts, illustrate these problems all too clearly. So do the maps of Taliban control and influence, and their supporting texts. There is a sharp contrast between the maps and data provided by the Lead Inspector General and the Department of Defense and the estimates drawn by the Long War Journal – which indicate that they are closer tied to the work of SIGAR. (See Pages 110 to 116 )

These contrasts are particularly striking because a number of policy and intelligence analysts feel that the Long War journal estimates are more correct and reflect a limited but realistic decline in government control – a position that seems to be support be the testimony of the DIO to Congress summarized in this same section.

Key Features of the Data Presented

That said. there are several aspects of the survey that the reader should be aware of: 
There was considerable strategic warning that the Taliban were re-emerging as a major threat. The U.S. was slow to react, evidently because the Iraq War had to be given higher priority. 

Throughout the war, the assessment of the relative success of the government and insurgent forces like the Taliban has been fundamental dishonest because it implies that the “government control” means effective control by the central government in Kabul, when the reality is that many areas are controlled by warlords and power brokers, and other areas are implied to be under full government control when the source data base indicates that they have limited government control or influence. 

The graphics and reporting on the on the civil side of the fighting, and the effectiveness of the Afghan central government and aid efforts, were largely cancelled after 2011, evidently because the maps and graphics did not reflect the planned level of progress. 

The data highlight the fact that the “surge” in U.S. forces in Afghanistan failed to have a lasting effect and the levels of violence have grown sharply in the process of Transition. A comparison of the previous civil trends, and overall trends in Afghan perceptions, shows the interaction between civil progress and violence, and that the Transition is not succeeding in its current form. 

The U.S. data on government or threat control seem questionable at best, and to sometimes count Districts as under government control that are actually under the control of various power brokers and warlords, or where the government has only a limited presence in the District capital. 

The UN data casualty data sometimes seem to reflect an expansion of threat activity that is not reflected in the estimates of control of the disputed districts. 

Some of the assessments made by governments, the United Nations, media, and think tanks are so different that there is a clear need to improve the official data collection and analysis effort. 

Erratic Classification and Suppression or Deletion of Data and Reporting

A close examination of the metrics from 2000-2018 shows that are a number of areas where reporting was halted, data were deleted, or data were selectively chosen to support a favorable view of events or support the policies of the time.

Erratic over-classification, removing key data, and ending given types of reporting when they start to reflect unfavorable trends has also been a major problem. As SIGAR notes in its April 30, 2018 Report to Congress, there are a number of areas where reporting is not made public where the motive seems to be to spin to war more favorably on downplay serious problems in the Afghan effort. SIGAR’s April 30, 2018 report describes the current state of this process as follows:

This quarter, USFOR-A declassified or allowed the public release of several

types of data related to the reconstruction of the Afghan security forces.

While USFOR-A’s action was helpful, it still entailed less detailed responses

than SIGAR received previously in some areas. The data declassified or cleared for public release include: 

Authorized (goal) strength for the ANDSF, total and by force element 
Top-line (total for each force element, not lower level breakdown) assigned (actual) strength of the ANDSF, ANA, and Afghan National Police (ANP) 
Complete district, population, and land-area control data 
Quarterly trend in attrition for the ANA and ANP 

USFOR-A continued to classify or newly classified the following data: 
ANDSF casualties, by force element and total 
Corps- and zone-level ANA and ANP, Afghan Air Force (AAF), SMW, and ANDSF medical personnel assigned (actual) strength (ALP and ANDSF female personnel were exempted and are reported) 
Exact ANA and ANP attrition figures 
Detailed performance assessments for the ANA, ANP, Ministry of Defense (MOD), and Ministry of Interior (MOI) 
Information about the operational readiness of ANA and ANP equipment 
Information about USFOR-A’s new air campaign under the South Asia Strategy, including the number of counternarcotics-related strikes conducted by USFOR-A since the beginning of the campaign, the number of drug labs destroyed, the effectiveness of those air strikes, the number of targets associated with Taliban financing, and the financial assessment of revenue denied to the insurgency as a result of the air strikes 
Detailed information about the new ANA Territorial Force (ANATF) 

USFOR-A determined the following data was unclassified but not publicly releasable: 
ALP attrition and casualties 
Detailed information about ANDSF progress on security benchmarks for the Afghanistan Compact 
Reporting on anticorruption efforts from the Ministry of Interior (MOI) 
Information about the Special Mission Wing (SMW), including the number and type of airframes in the SMW inventory, the number of pilots and aircrew, the percent-breakdown of counternarcotics and counterterrorism missions flown, and the operational readiness (and associated benchmarks) of SMW airframes 

For a full list of the questions for which USFOR-A provided classified or unclassified but not publicly releasable responses, see Appendix E of this report.

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